Thursday Thoughts: Healthy Eating on a Budget

It's Thursday, so you know what that means...

Thursday Thoughts

If you are new to my blog, or haven't been reading on Thursdays, this is a segment where I post my thoughts about various nutrition and health related topics, or maybe even something else if it is really an intriguing topic.  Most of my current views and opinions come from experience working as a dietitian and as college instructor in nutrition courses.  Most of that learning is science based or observational from the clinical setting.  In general, I hate overgeneralizations, so for many of the things I post, I expect there is one or two exceptions because broad sweeping generalizations are always bound to miss out on something. 

This is one topic I have been discussing recently with my students.  It is a common thought that eating healthy has to be expensive and I know many people really think that it is cheaper to eat "junk".  Here are my thoughts:

1) I think the start of this problem is that many people do not know what a healthy diet really means so they have a skewed perception of the foods they need to buy.  Many people think a healthy diet is filled with organic foods bought only at fancy grocery stores, with multiple trips weekly to buy ensure they have lots of fresh produce.  I think this scares people.  It can be overwhelming to think about all of the "healthy" options out there at these gourmet health food stores, where the prices can be quite high for some foods.  These healthy looking stores also have a large product selection of fast and easy frozen and boxed entrees that only seem healthy because of their price and packaging, but in reality have as much fat and sodium as some of the traditional convenience foods.  This skewed perception of healthy has made many people think that they simply can't afford it.  

2) The good news is that they don't need to buy expensive gourmet organic foods to be healthy.  If the alternative is fast food or boxed meals, the in between, which some of you may not consider healthy (although as an RD I will say that it is healthy) is really the way to go when it comes to cost.  Many people think it has to be organic to be healthy, but most reports I have seen still show that there is limited additional nutrition benefit to organic foods.  While there is no doubt better effects on the environment with the lack of pesticide use, there is no real nutritional benefit to organic.  Some foods may have a little more of some vitamins or minerals, but when the alternative to this is no fruits or veggies, I would rather someone get a few less mg of a nutrient by choosing conventional produce than none at all because they can't afford organic.  Splurging your paycheck on all organic, natural frozen and prepared foods is no more nutritious than splurging on conventional goods.  And when it comes to produce and other agricultural goods, choose local if you are looking to make a real difference in the environment and to help your local economy.  

3) Healthy can come cheap.  My top 3 suggestions for this are A) dried beans B) frozen fruits and vegetables and C) bake your own breads.  Yes, I have tons more when it comes to suggestions for healthy foods on a budget, but these are a great way to get started.  Other ideas include canned with no added salt, whole wheat pastas, and frozen meats.  After you buy the food, some other money saving ideas are to cook in large batches, then refrigerate or freeze the extra food.  This is a great way to get nutritious meals later when you are on the run.  Choose snacks that are non-perishable so you do not need to worry about carrying an ice pack around with you.  Oh, did I mention, cook things yourself.  Seriously, this makes a huge difference.  Making a batch of a healthy chili packed with cheap beans and some fresh veggies is really inexpensive and can last quite a few days.

4) One of the biggest things I have noticed when it comes to eating healthy with less income to spend on these foods is that there is a real mind trick going on.  When someone spends $2-3 here and there for food, a few times a day at a fast food establishment, it is easy to think that was cheap because you only had to give up $2-3 at that time.  Well, if you do this 3 times a day, you have quickly spent $6-9 on what is very likely to be unhealthy foods.  But, since you did not spend that $6-9 all at once, it didn't "feel" like a lot of money.  Now, when you grocery shop for the week, you are more likely to buy a lot of foods at once and have a bill anywhere from $50-100 or more (maybe less) depending on how many people you are buying for.  Spending $100 at one time "feels" like a lot of money to let go of.  Now, I have not read research on the psychological aspects of this, this is purely based on my own experience, that of others I know who have had fixed income at one time or another, and interactions with my clients.  I have noticed that people are more likely to give up a few dollars at one time rather than a larger quantity because it just seems like a lot.  I think many people do not realize how quickly those convenience foods add up and that they really can save money when buying foods at a grocery store and preparing their own meals.  For those people who still claim they have no time, I do encourage cooking a lot of foods at once and making your own frozen dinners.  Then you get healthy foods and still have the convenience.

5) Lastly, price shop and use coupons.  I know that when I lived in Vegas, I would pass 3-4 different stores near my house on a regular basis.  All of those had circulars that were delivered to my home so I could review in advance and see what prices were available.  I have even found that foods on sale are also likely to have coupons in the paper that week too, so the savings can really add up.  Those swipe cards are good too for discounts.  I know some people do not like that it collects information on your purchases, but honestly, you can still get a card and never fill out the personal information and the card will still work.  There are so many discounts out there that you just need to look...and use coupons.  The internet now even has coupons available for products.  It is easy, but it takes some planning and a little extra time.  Trust me, it is worth it.

So, those are my thoughts on healthy eating on a budget.  It is not impossible and healthy eating does not have to be expensive.  Healthy eating for the general public falls somewhere between fast food and convenience foods all the time and shopping exclusively at "health food" stores.  There is an in between and this can be healthy too.  Everything in moderation.  Healthy eating does not need to be an all or nothing situation.

QUESTIONS:  What are your thoughts on this?  Do you think healthy eating is more expensive than not eating healthy?  What are some of your tips for eating healthy on a budget?


Beth said...

okay, I'll admit it--I guess I'm a "health food store" shopper. I do the fast majority of my food shopping at Whole Foods. Yes, I'm not really "on a budget." But I always get sensitive when people start criticizing people who shop at Whole Foods for being "rich, snotty, yuppy (insert your favorite here)." I shop at Whole Foods because during the winter (I shop at the Farmer's Market in the summer) they have better produce than Safeway (my other local store) and they have a CHEAP bulk section. Oatmeal for $1.30/pound. YES PLEASE! Dried Beans for ~$1 pound. AGAIN YES!!! It doesn't have to be Whole Paycheck if you shop smart!

I like your tips! Cooking at home saves us so much money! So $80 for a week of groceries at Whole Foods doesn't seem like a lot when I figure it's easily 15+ meals for my husband and I.

Andrea@WellnessNotes said...

I agree, healthy eating can be affordable "in the big picture." I spent quite a bit on groceries, but we hardly ever eat out (never for lunch during the week, and only about once per week for lunch or dinner on the weekend). I also don't buy coffee, etc. except on "special occasions" when I meet a friend.

I feel the overall amount we spend on food and drinks is "reasonable." However, when I talk to friends they are sometimes shocked by how much I spend. However, they don't consider that they eat out for lunch every day and several times for dinner. Plus, they get coffee regularly. When you add it all up, they probably spend more.

Staples that I always buy are beans, seasonal veggies, eggs, and whole grains. You can build healthy meals around them. Making as much as possible from scratch really keeps the cost down. While it's hard to cook during the week, I try to pre-cook as many meals as I can on the weekend. A few hours spent in the kitchen on Sundays really pays off. (I think/hope the colder weather will help with this and motivate me...)

I do buy organic when I can, not so much because of the additional nutrients but because of the pesticides I don't want in and on my food. Plus, it is of course better for the environment. However, I am selective. We belong to an organic CSA and get a good deal on seasonal organic produce every other week. I try to go by the "Dirty Dozen" list and buy the items on it organic. But I don't worry too much when we eat things that are not organic.

Mari said...

I don't really think that eating healthy is expensive but it might be because I live in NY and everything seems ezpensive =)

Michelle @ Find Your Balance said...

When I hear people complain about the cost of eating healthy I'm like, puh-leez! I definitely save money by eating unprocessed food. It's the packaged stuff that you pay a premium for - but veggies, fruit, dried beans and whole grains are super cheap.

Gina; The Candid RD said...

All fantastic points.
I can't believe how many people sitll think that if they eat organic foods, not matter what they are, they are healthy! After reading the Omnivore's Dilemma I am truly convinced that organic doesn't mean healthy (and, I've never thought that, really).

I also think it's important to point out that prepping a health meal doesn't have to take a lot of time! I make dinner in 10 minutes sometimes. It can be so simple!! And like you said, doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg.

Kristen (swanky dietitian) said...

I think a lot of times it is also that people want quick meals. They don't realize that healthy eating can be quick!
I love using tofu and beans for quick staples.

Jane Cruzat RN said...

Great article! Wise buyers can pick from inexpensive foods without neglecting their nutritional values...

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